Saudi Arabia is becoming the drug capital of the Middle East
Police said he was under the influence of shabu, a methamphetamine, according to local papers.
The kingdom, they say, is one of the largest and most lucrative regional destinations for drugs, and that status is only intensifying.
Captagon was originally the brand name for a medicinal product containing the synthetic stimulant fenethylline. Though it is no longer produced legally, counterfeit drugs carrying the captagon name are regularly seized in the Middle East, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
The drug was popularized in the kingdom some 15 years ago but has taken off more intensely in the past five years, “perhaps becoming on par with cannabis,” according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, who has written on the topic.
Saudi Arabia’s Center for International Communication didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment.
“Captagon’s amphetamine-type properties are sought out as a coping mechanism that can aid users facing food insecurity in staving hunger, and inducing a euphoric ‘rush’ that users have said to help with traumatic stress,” said Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at the New Lines Institute in Washington, D.C. who has studied the captagon trade. “It’s also been said that these same traits for captagon have been sought out by foreign workers in wealthy Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, seen to aid work performance.”
“In wealthier consumer markets, the drug has a different appeal, serving as a recreational activity amongst its growing youth population that, despite social reforms… have reportedly struggled with boredom amidst widespread youth unemployment and a lack of opportunities for leisurely activities,” said Rose. “Some consumers have justified captagon as less of a taboo substance, compared to ‘harder’ drugs like opiates and cocaine.”
Since many young people in Saudi Arabia have been taking drugs as a result of boredom and lack of social opportunities, the increased freedoms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could help reduce some of that use, said Felbab-Brown.
“The important thing is neither to curtail the freedoms, nor to turn concerts into places of dragnets and raids, but rather to educate young people,” she told CNN.
Over the past few years, a number of drug rehabilitation centers have popped up across the kingdom after the government began licensing private establishments.
“We’re in high demand, unfortunately,” he told CNN. “But at least people have an option now, instead of having to go to neighboring countries to seek treatment.”
Despite the presence of rehabilitation centers, Rose says there is little public health messaging or campaigning to raise awareness about captagon.
“While this taboo regarding drug consumption in the kingdom is not going anywhere, the government’s tendency to exclusively securitize this issue and downplay its role as a destination market will be harder to ignore,” she said.
Felbab-Brown says drug policies in the Middle East have focused on the harshest of responses.
“Unlike large parts of the world [that] have walked away from such rigid and mostly ineffective or outright counterproductive policies, the Middle East has often doubled down on them,” she said. “Imprisoning users is ineffective and counterproductive.”
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